Large-Format Photography Yields Big Results: Size Does Matter. Even as the Art World Has Embraced Digital Imaging, Traditional Large-Format Photography Is Experiencing a Renaissance, Spurred by Its Ability to Capture a Visually Rich World with Clarity of Detail and Subtle Nuances of Light and Shadow. (Large-Format Photography)

By Meyers, Laura | Art Business News, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Large-Format Photography Yields Big Results: Size Does Matter. Even as the Art World Has Embraced Digital Imaging, Traditional Large-Format Photography Is Experiencing a Renaissance, Spurred by Its Ability to Capture a Visually Rich World with Clarity of Detail and Subtle Nuances of Light and Shadow. (Large-Format Photography)


Meyers, Laura, Art Business News


When the camera was first invented more than 150 years ago, taking a photograph was anything but a quick or spontaneous affair. Picture the first 19th-century photographers, perched behind unwieldy wooden cameras atop tripods, their subjects sitting stiffly without motion. Exposure times were measured in minutes, not quarters of seconds. And the equipment was heavy. In 1861, when he first journeyed to the American West, photographer Carleton E. Watkins employed a dozen pack mules to carry his load.

It's no wonder, then, with the advent of lighter-weight and speedier cameras, that most fine art and commercial photographers abandoned large-format cameras and film in favor of Leicas and Nikons. To be sure, there have always been lensmen who favor large format: Consider well-known photographers Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Irving Penn, Art Sinsabaugh, Richard Avedon and Brett and Cole Weston. Still, until lately, the roster of large-format photographers with work routinely found in art galleries was short.

Yet large format never lost its allure for some of those trying to capture what Florida Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher calls "the secret life" of nature. Simply put, the smallest large-format negative is 14 times larger than 35 mm film and the large-format camera records 25 times more detail than a common film frame. Butcher and other contemporary photographers have discovered that large format enabled them to obtain intimate and intricate details that other cameras overlooked.

In the past decade, there has been a revival of interest in large-format photography, prompted in part by new technology, improvements in the cameras themselves and the wider availability of film. Workshops on the topic are being taught throughout the United States and Europe. Indeed, "more and more universities are teaching alternative photography and large-format classes," observed Dana Sullivan, lab manager at Bostick & Sullivan, a provider of fine art film materials and sponsor of a biannual symposium on large-format and alternative photographic processes held in Santa Fe, N.M., in July in conjunction with Photo Arts Santa Fe. Also timed to the festival in Santa Fe in mid-July is the second-annual national conference of large-format photographers. There's even a magazine, View Camera, devoted to the topic.

"More people are turning to large-format photography," said Butcher. (Large format cameras are defined by the size in inches of the negative. For example, 8 by 10 means an 8-by 10-inch negative.) Butcher purchased his first 5 by 7 camera in 1971 and has been nicknamed the "Ansel Adams of the Everglades." Butcher is famed for recreating, in vivid tonality and detail, the threatened Florida Everglades wilderness swamps, with their dense foliage and moss-draped cypress trees. He hauls his mammoth cameras, tripod and film deep into the swamps of Florida and threatened wilderness landscapes elsewhere in America. "I wanted to show the extreme detail and intimacy of nature. Large format allows me to do that--it is a way of getting to know and getting a feeling for the landscape. With large format, you become more one with nature."

"There has been a resurgence of popularity in large-format photography," agreed Paula Chamlee, who shoots with an 8 by 10 camera and makes contact prints (that is, a print the same size as the negative). Her husband, Michael A. Smith, also makes contact prints from "ultra" large-format cameras, he said, sometimes using "really big negatives, up to 18 by 22. That is the old 19th-century, mammoth-sized 50-pound camera." Smith purchased his first 8 by 20 camera in 1978 for $15 and published a two-volume book in the early 1980s, Landscapes 1975-1979, which presented full-size 8 by 20 reproductions. "It sparked a resurgence of interest which continues to this day," Smith observed.

While large format is growing in popularity among photographers and in university fine art programs, the galleries who sell this type of work have not done a stellar job of educating the public on the processes used to create the photographs. …

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Large-Format Photography Yields Big Results: Size Does Matter. Even as the Art World Has Embraced Digital Imaging, Traditional Large-Format Photography Is Experiencing a Renaissance, Spurred by Its Ability to Capture a Visually Rich World with Clarity of Detail and Subtle Nuances of Light and Shadow. (Large-Format Photography)
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